The book of Tobit is part of the Apocrypha – a set of books in the Bible that were written later than the rest of the Old Testament, but just before the time of Jesus. Some churches treat them as part of the Old Testament; some don’t use them at all. We Anglicans have treated them as a sort of secondary Scripture, of some historical and theological meaning. Some of us here at St. Dunstan’s know the book of Tobit very well, because it was the core story for our Vacation Bible School back in 2016. We know that Tobit was a pious man, who took sacrifices to the Great Temple in Jerusalem even when all his neighbors had started worshiping other gods. We know that Tobit married a woman named Anna, and they had a son, Tobias. We know that when the Assyrian Army conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, this little family was taken into exile in the city of Nineveh in Assyria.
It was a terrible time. Tobit’s family and the other Jewish exiles had lost everything, and Nineveh was a violent and heartless city. Often Tobit would find dead bodies in the street – people who had been killed by bandits or died of starvation. If the dead person was one of the people Israel, Tobit would take the body outside the city gates and bury them with prayers, according to the ways of the Jewish people. What he was doing was against the law, and risky; but Tobit was stubborn in offering that final dignity to his kinspeople. As little as his family had, they also gave food and clothing to those in worse circumstances. But then one day, through a tragic accident, Tobit became blind. He could no longer do good for his people, or even care for his own family. Anna had to work, so they could eat.
In his grief, Tobit became bitter and angry. One day, in desperation, he prayed that God would free him from this life, because death would be better than this suffering: Blessed are You, O God of my ancestors! God, you are righteous and just in all that you do. Please, God, hear my prayer and be merciful to me. Remember me and set me free!
Then there’s this wonderful split-screen moment, in this 2300-year-old text: JUST AS Tobit is praying for death to free him from suffering, so is a young woman named Sarah. Sarah is distant kin to Tobit; she lives in another city, with her parents. She has been married seven times, but each time, on her wedding night, a demon, Asmodeus, kills her new husband! People blame her for the deaths – and no future seems possible for her, especially in a time when family was a woman’s fulfillment. Sarah prays: God, I turn to you for help! Please hear my prayer and set me free from this terrible life!
And Tobit’s prayers and Sarah’s prayers land on God’s desk in the same instant -and God says, I have an idea. We can fix both of these situation at once. God sends the Archangel Raphael, in disguise, to set the plan in motion. And… hijinks ensue, with young Tobias and Raphael, under the name Azariah, at the center of it all. I really can’t tell the whole story here but I hope you’ll go read it if you don’t already know it!
There are many Biblical names you might hesitate to bestow, if you actually read the stories attached to the names. But Tobias is not one of them. In the story, Tobias is plucky and good-hearted. He loves his family, but he’s up for adventures out in the world. And with Raphael’s help, he saves his father Tobit; restores the family fortunes; frees Sarah from bondage to the demon, with the help of fish guts; and of course, finds true love. We’re taking liberties with the lectionary this morning; the book of Tobit does not actually appear in the Sunday lectionary – but there IS a suggested Tobit reading in the marriage rite, Tobias and Sarah’s prayer on their wedding night: “Grant that we may find mercy and that we may grow old together.” Naturally, the story culminates with the mysteriously helpful companion Azariah revealing himself as the Archangel Raphael – who tells the family that it is God’s grace that has brought good out of their misfortunes, and charges them with blessing God and doing good for others, their whole lives long.
I guess you could say the thread connecting the story of Tobit and Tobias with today’s Gospel is: God invites ordinary people on extraordinary journeys.
In the other three Gospels, Jesus acquires disciples – this set of people who were his friends, followers and students – he acquires disciples by simply inviting people to follow him; and some of them do. It’s only Luke who fills out the story this way: Simon Peter, James and John have been fishing all night; they haven’t caught ANYTHING. The nets are empty. Then Jesus asks Simon to take him in his boat and take him just a little bit out from shore, so he can preach to the people without being crushed by the mob. Pretty clever!
Simon’s fine with it; it’s not like he has fish to clean! But when Jesus finishes his speech, he has this dumb idea: Put out the nets, see if you catch anything. Simon says: “… If you say so.” And of course the nets come up so full that they’re breaking. Simon calls James and John to bring their boat, but there are so many fish the boats are nearly sinking. And it’s in this moment when it just becomes too much for Simon. He’s heard Jesus preach; he’s seen Jesus heal; and now – these fish – well, it’s terrific, of course, but it’s also almost insulting. Simon is a fisherman. He has a craft. He knows the right season and time of day, the right temperature in the air and color of the water, to maximize his catch; and Jesus comes along and says, You want fish? Here, have some fish.
And Simon cracks. He falls to his knees among the fish in the bottom of the boat and says, Go away! This is too much for me! I’m a sinner! Which is to say, I’m ordinary! Let me stay ordinary! And Jesus says, Don’t be afraid. You’re coming with me, and you’re going to do new things.
Don’t be afraid. In Tobit the refrain is, Take courage. People say that to each other over and over again: facing the bitter violence of the times, the uncertainty of the path ahead, demons to be vanquished, healing to be received: Take courage. Don’t be afraid. Such a little thing to say, but somehow it’s enough. Just as Tobias sets out on his journey, Simon, James and John set out on theirs, leaving boats, nets and fish alike on the shore, and following Jesus.
Simon Peter’s holy adventure doesn’t, as far as we know, lead to true love or wealth. Tradition says he was crucified, like Jesus, his friend and Lord. On the other hand, he could have spent his whole life as a not-very-good fisherman, instead of becoming a revered saint and father of our faith. So.
God invites ordinary people on extraordinary journeys – and it’s good to have companions on the road. Tobias has Azariah, the mysteriously knowledgeable gentleman with – are those wings, under his cloak? And Tobias and Azariah also have the comfort and companionship of the unnamed dog.
Jesus’ disciples have each other – and Jesus has them. This is interesting: Luke puts this scene slightly later in his Gospel than the others. In Mark, Matthew and John, Jesus calls disciples to accompany him as soon as he begins his public ministry of preaching and healing. But in Luke, Jesus gives it a go on his own for a little while. Not long; but long enough to travel around a few villages, healing people and casting out demons and proclaiming God’s liberating love. And long enough that he’s starting to struggle with the overwhelming crowds that follow him and cling to him, won’t let him rest, won’t let him move on.
THEN, already becoming famous, perhaps already becoming exhausted, Jesus calls his first disciples. I don’t know why Luke flips the story this way. Maybe he simply heard that that’s how it happened. But it does make me wonder if even Jesus, the Son of the Living God, fully divine as well as fully human, needed some friends.
He needed people to walk with on the long dusty roads of Judea. To relax with in the evenings, to laugh over the awkward moments and unpack the hard ones. To tell the crowds to leave him alone, now and then, so he could pray, and sleep, and maybe take a shower. So he asks Peter to join him. And John. And James. And the rest.
God invites ordinary people on extraordinary journeys – and it’s good to have companions on the road. Today we will baptize a baby boy named Tobias. These stories can direct our prayers for Toby, for all the young ones we are raising in this faith community and the not-so-young ones too: May Toby, may all of us, come face to face with something important, something that calls us with urgency; and may we have the courage and curiosity to answer the call. May Toby, may all of us, set our feet to the path on which our own hopes intersect with God’s purposes, for us and for others through us. May Toby, may all of us, have companions for the hard stuff, and the fun stuff too. May we have enough; may we find love; may we be guided by angels in disguise.
In the book of Tobit, Sarah’s father prays for the young couple with gratitude and hope: ‘Blessed are you, O God, with every pure blessing; let all your chosen ones bless you for ever. Blessed are you because you have made me glad. It has not turned out as I expected, but you have dealt with us according to your great mercy. Blessed are you because you had compassion on these beloved children. Be merciful to them, O Master, and keep them safe; bring their lives to fulfilment in happiness and mercy.’ Amen.